A seasoned Project Manager, you quickly learn that there’s no escaping project politics.
It’s a fact of life.
‘When you play a game of projects you deliver or you fail.’
But you may find yourself tempted to say something like: ‘Hang on, I’m a project manager: not a politician.’
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? You could spend your days focusing on the basic management principles.
Well, pretty near the top is… Stakeholder Engagement. And what’s that all about? Politics.
So, you’ll always came back to the political dimension.
Because it’s always there in real life. No matter how much you may want to; you cannot escape project politics. So you do need to understand the basics.
You can’t go over it. You can’t go around it. So, you’ll have to go through it.
In this guide, we’ll help you out with some of the best tools and techniques to help you navigate the pitfalls of project politics.
We’ll cover four essential elements:
Your first step is to reveal the political dimensions of your project. You’ll need to create some form of map of your stakeholders. There are two tools I particularly particularly recommend.
The first tool is a Proximity Map. This helps you understand your project politics from the perspective of how close each stakeholder is to the heart of your project.
Start by drawing concentric circles, putting your project in the middle. Each circle represents a set of stakeholders at a distance from your project. So, the innermost circle is you project team – or maybe just your core team. Subsequent circles represent stakeholders at greater distance from your project. For example:
Place each stakeholder into the right circle. You can also put stakeholders on the left or right of a centre line. This can represent different levels of opposition or support to your project. Or you can use positioning from top to bottom to denote strength of influence. This is a quick and easy chart to create.
A sociogram will take you longer to produce. But it’s a more powerful tool for understanding the political dimension of your project. It reveals patterns of political influence among your stakeholders.
Here’s how you create a sociogram:
This social network diagram will start to reveal what the natural grouping and alliances are likely to be. So, you’ll see who the powerful political players are, at the hubs of those groups. And which individuals span groups and link them together, and who are the outliers.
With this diagram, you’ll be well-placed to navigate your project’s political dimension.
I have never tried this, but you could overlay a network onto a proximity map. You would start by arranging your stakeholders in concentric circles. Then you’d draw the linkages to see how influences connect up. It will reveal the ways your core stakeholders connect with more distant stakeholders.
‘Life is a search for power.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The next thing you need to understand is the source of your stakeholders’ political power.
There are many types of power. Back in the 1950s, John French and Bertram Raven did the key work on document this. They described ‘social power bases’. Their use of the word ‘social’ that power stems from our relationships.
To help us, let’s compare your project to international politics.
Some people have power because their role or status grants it to them. The system gives them the power to make decisions and expect others to comply. Heads of state and senior officials have this. On your project, so too do bosses, project sponsors, and Boards.
Some nations and corporations have the resources they need to exert power. Anyone who can grant or withhold money or favors has this kind of reward power.
How does this work on your project? The project board, grant-giving bodies, and your gateway review panel can reward in this way.
If you have a big stick and are prepared to use it, people are likely to comply. Coercion or promises of protection are powerful political tools. But fear will not build strong long-term relationships.
You can see this as the opposite of the ability to reward that we called economic power. But this form of coercion has little integrity. So, avoid flexing your muscles and giving shows of strength. And be wary of corporate bullies – either organisations or individuals.
Some politicians are particularly astute at influence and persuasion. And in organisations, some people are gatekeepers, with relatively low status roles. On the face of it, these stakeholders have little power. But their ability to influence, or to say yes or no to your requests give them power. You just don’t always see it at first. So charm them. And don’t let their formal status mislead you.
Among the most powerful political operators are those with wide network of alliances. On the international stage, think:
This is a model I recommend for serious project managers who want to build a long-term career. Build up a network or high-trust relationships within and beyond your organization. Join professional groups, business networks, and social clubs. Take a longer view than the one project you are working on today. This will help you to create a valuable personal and professional asset.
Access to information is a form of resource power. It is therefore linked to economic power. But knowledge is such a vital asset on projects. It is worth separating it out.
That said, the ability to use that information is quite different. It confers another form of power…
Information and knowledge are nothing without experts who can interpret it and put it to work. These individuals need to feel your respect.
But, beware of the trap of trusting experts beyond their domain of expertise. This is known as the ‘halo effect’. Also note that experts have a habit of being more certain than the evidence warrants. This is especially so, in unfamiliar contexts. And that’s what projects often are.
The ultimate political power base is the respect and trust that others have for you.
This comes from your character, personality and intellectual authority. And of course, the necessary anchor for this is integrity.
Building a personal reputation for integrity, wsdom, dependability… This is the biggest professional investment you can make. The more you grow your personal power; the more successful your career will be.
In the last section, we looked at the power of alliances, and personal power. If you want to negotiate project politics easily, these need to be a deliberate strategy on your part.
So, you want to know, how can you develop long-term professional alliances?
1. Understand the power structure
2. Attract people to you
3. Create your reputation
4. Build alliances
Since I have already discussed step 1, let’s look at steps 2, 3, and 4.
What are the characteristics that will attract people to you? As a project manager, you should already have:
But we’re also attracted to people who inspire us and who make us feel good about ourselves.
But being inspirational does not mean isolating yourself. A project leader that sets themself apart from the people around them, makes it harder for people to get to know them. This will reduce their tendency to like and trust you.
So, a leadership style that will attract people to you is a generous one. Be open and give unreservedly: you time, your support, and you advice.
‘You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do’
We build our reputations on achievements. So, there is nothing sustainable that you can do to through talk alone. Actions talk louder than boasts.
So, create the reputation you want by choosing the things you do. And then, do them exceptionally well. Whether you are an implementer, a leader, a thinker, a creator, or a listener…
Plan your long-term influencing campaign by starting with the reputation you would like to have. And then, set out to build a substantial track record of excellence in that arena.
Long term professional alliances take time to build. So, do it in stages.
If you like the ideas in this article, the next step is to do what it takes to understand your political landscape. I have based this model on the work of Simon Baddeley and Kim James.
If you like by the ideas in this article, you will commit to do what it takes to become highly aware of your political landscape. And you will also want to commit to investing in long term relationships. You’ll recognize that quick wins alone can compromise your long-term political status. This will move you towards the category of a ‘Wise’ political operator.
But, I’ve seen that not every project manager manages (or even tries) to achieve this. Some focus far more on the short-term project politics and today’s opportunities. They target their stakeholder engagement on immediate project concerns. And they do so, ruthlessly looking for political advantage.
Implicitly, they prefer to worry about tomorrow when it comes. So, these project managers often come across as savvy and street wise. But, they are rarely aware of the risks to their long-term reputations. These are ‘Smart’ political operators.
Of course, we have all met some people who aspire to be smart like this. But they fail, because they aren’t aware enough of what is going on. They don’t read the project politics. So, they can’t tell who really has the power, and how to influence effectively. We can describe these project managers as ‘Inept’ political operators.
Finally, far too many project managers take the purist attitude I described above.
‘Hang on, I’m a project manager: not a politician.’
They like the comfort of focusing on the technical aspects of project management. They don’t want to acknowledge the project politics. And they certainly prefer not to have to get involved in it.
Their awareness of project politics is low; although their intentions are pure. Their concern is for their long-term reputation, of course. But they don’t see that the politics is just as important as their professionalism and skills.
These are the ‘Innocent’ political operators. They can to manage a project well, but only in a vacuum. They need to learn the political craft, or access shrewd political leadership from their sponsor or a trusted colleague.
Does this sound a little like you? If so, my concern is simple. You may continue to deliver technically excellent projects. But, you will fail to achieve all the recognition you think you deserve.
Because, ultimately, project management and politics are inextricably linked. They always have been and, like it or not, they always will be.Ultimately, #project management and politics are inextricably linked Click To Tweet
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Mike first published a version of this article at ProjectManager.com.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.